To be sure, a solid film biography of Jackie Robinson is long overdue. Though it was made with the best of intentions, and features the man himself, 1950's "The Jackie Robinson Story," isn't a film that has aged well. Noble in intent but awkwardly executed, it gets bogged down in sentiment and melodrama and is hard to watch with a straight face today, many of the unintentional laughs coming from Robinson's wooden performance. Thankfully, he had the whole baseball thing to fall back on as acting gave him more fits than a late-breaking curve.
Brian Helgeland's "42" is the biography Robinson deserves. However, that's not to say that it's a complete success. The director seems far more interested in presenting post-World War II America as we imagine it rather that how it really was and trips up when it occasionally goes out of its way to enhance the myth surrounding its subject rather than deal with the man himself. Still, there's no denying that Helgeland has constructed a solid and occasionally inspiring work that gets by on its good intentions, rousing performances from its two leads and the turns from various supporting actors as well.
Ostensibly covering 1947, the year in which Robinson broke the color barrier to become the first black player in major league baseball, the movie proves to be an efficient storytelling machine as Helgeland keeps things moving from one key event to the next, faithfully recreating some, condensing others and fabricating a few. It's a compliment to the director that while the film is two hours long, it rarely feels like it, gradually building a full head of narrative steam, that mirrors Robinson's ascension in the big leagues.
Perhaps the smartest thing Helgeland does is that, while some scenes play out with an ample serving of corn, he doesn't set out to portray Robinson as a saint, but merely a man who finds himself at the crossroads of history, searching for the fortitude to navigate the uncharted social waters he's set to embark on.
Boseman is quite good in this regard as he convincingly shows how the ballplayer's attitude developed over the course of the season. A bit arrogant at first, he comes to realize he's in over his head as things progress, especially after an ugly incident involving Philadelphia Phillies' manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who mercilessly heckles him. Yet ultimately he's able to come to terms with the situation and endure. In underplaying the role, Boseman takes us inside the man, showing us his doubts and strength in equal measure, underscoring Robinson's humanity from which his heroism grew.
On the other end of the spectrum is Harrison Ford, who delivers one juicy piece of ham as Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey. Mercilessly chewing on a battered stogie, gruffly delivering his lines in a muffled baritone, the actor is fun to watch as he blusters about, cajoling, chastising and at turns inspiring those who oppose this grand experiment.
Ford has presence to spare, but his most effective moment comes when he counsels and consoles Robinson after a particularly bad day, a fabricated moment from Helgeland's pen that both the actors run with. Maybe this inspirational event didn't happen per se, but Ford and Boseman know this is the turning point of the film and deliver such an emotional scene that you can't help but wish it were true.
Myth and history collide throughout and create more than a few dissonant notes, the harshest of them being the short shrift accorded to Robinson's wife Rachel who was the rock behind the man. This is to be expected from films of this sort, but in the end, what matters is that the spirit of the movie stays true to its subject. That "42" is noble in intent and a reflection of true courage is as apt a reflection of its subject as one can ever hope for.
'42' (3 stars out of 4)
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, T.R. Knight, Nicole Beharie, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk and John C. McGinley.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland; produced by Thomas Tull.
A Warner Brothers release. 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 (thematic elements including language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
Also new in theaters
Beautiful "On the Road's" reach exceeds its grasp. (2 1/2 stars)
If favorable reviews and big box office were generated by good intentions, then Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's seminal novel of the Beat Generation, "On the Road," would be garnering universally positive reviews and raking in money hand over fist. But alas, that's not the way of the world, and while the director must be commended for adhering to the text and spirit of the novel, in the end the material simply doesn't translate well to the big screen.
Autobiographical in nature and radical in its execution, "On the Road" was a novel that perfectly captured the sense of aimlessness that so many felt in post-World War II America. Based on Kerouac's nomadic experiences with his good friend Neal Cassady, it's a disjointed and at times rambling collection of stories that chronicle the various physical and emotional trips these two took as they attempted to break from tradition and discover a better way to live.
Sal and Dean, the novel's counterparts for Jack and Neal respectively, travel from New York City to San Francisco and many points in between over the course of three years, experimenting with drugs, exploring their sexuality and trying to find a degree of peace through their art.
During this period, Dean abandons his wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) and child and takes up with Marylou (Kristen Stewart), a lost soul herself.
As shot by cinematographer Eric Gautier, the film is a visual delight as he perfectly captures the various moods and climes of the United States, underscoring not only the country's ever-shifting nature and beauty but driving home how it reflects the characters' own unsettled personalities. This is the movie's strongest suit, as it visually plays like a romantic travelogue, portraying America as a country ripe with endless opportunity and open to a new way of living.
As Sal and Dean, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund respectively are enthusiastic in their approach, each eager to embrace the unsettled nature of these men, willing to dive in head first in regard to recreating the experimental aspects of their experiences.
Stewart takes the same approach and succeeds at times. I just wish I didn't continually get the sense that she's reluctant to fully embrace the stage she's on. If there's a more awkward, shy movie star than Stewart at work right now, I'd be hard-pressed to name her.
Regrettably, in the end, Salles' adaptation must be regarded as a noble failure and proof that some novels are not meant to be made into films. I have no doubt that lovers of the book and Kerouac scholars will take more from the movie than I did and will perhaps rejoice in its making. Yet, in remaining true to the author's approach in recreating his rambling, disjointed style, Salles ultimately undercuts his own work.
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